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Chesapeake’s blue crabs holding steady after rebound

Winter survey finds numbers down by only 2 percent in bay

By Christine Condon, Baltimore Sun
Published: June 11, 2024, 5:55am

BALTIMORE — After a rebound last year from a rock-bottom count the year before, the number of blue crabs estimated in the Chesapeake Bay held fairly steady, according to this year’s winter survey.

For the survey, released last Wednesday, state officials dredge the bay bottom to find the crustaceans resting beneath the mud for warmth, then approximate the species’ total abundance. This year, they estimate there are 317 million blue crabs in the bay and its tributaries, compared to 323 million last year.

For the fifth straight year, the count is below the historical average, which is above 400 million crabs. But this year’s tally is an improvement relative to 2022, when surveyors recorded 229 million crabs, the lowest figure since the winter dredge began in 1990.

The roughly 2 percent decline from last year is hardly significant, and the department doesn’t expect to make any major changes to harvest restrictions come July, when the rules are reevaluated, said Michael Luisi, associate director of Fishing and Boating Services at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

“We feel pretty confident that the measures that we have currently in place are doing their job, with the abundance that we have — and given that the abundance hasn’t changed very much since last year,” Luisi said.

That means bushel limits for male crabs, set for the first time in 2022, are likely to remain in place. Historically, the state placed commercial limits only on the harvest of spawning-age female crabs, called sooks, to ensure ample reproduction from year to year.

But Maryland fisheries managers became concerned that too many male crabs were being removed from the population, Luisi said, prompting the limits.

Despite those restrictions, the number of adult male crabs in the Chesapeake declined slightly in this year’s survey, conducted by the Department of Natural Resources and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science from December through March.

“The population still hasn’t shown any signs of abundance surging,” Luisi said. “So, we feel like at this point, we’re just going to maintain the male limits as well as the female limits for this coming year.”

The male bushel limits were a disappointing development, said Robert T. Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, but continued strong market demand for crabs softened the blow for crabbers.

“We don’t like them,” Brown said of the limits. “But that’s just the way it is with the science and stuff: You have got to protect our industry.”

Perhaps the most worrisome development from this year’s survey, though, is the continued low numbers of juvenile crabs in the bay, Luisi said. This year’s data showed a slight improvement but remained below average for the fourth straight year.

Blue crabs grow quickly, reaching maturity in 12 to 18 months, so low numbers of juveniles quickly impact the overall population. The crustaceans generally live three to four years.

Plenty of ecosystem threats could account for the low numbers, including poor water quality and the corresponding loss of underwater grasses — critical habitat for growing crabs. Invasive blue catfish, known for their indiscriminate appetites, also could be playing a role. Studies have shown that the cherished crustaceans are on the menu for blue catfish.

That being said, it’s unclear precisely which factors are causing the continued low “recruitment” numbers of baby blue crabs, Luisi said.

“I believe that we definitely have enough females in the population to produce a strong year class,” Luisi said, “but we just haven’t had one in a few years.”

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The number of female crabs in the bay — 133 million — is below the department’s target of 196 million.

“There remains a significant need to continue to protect adult females and critical nursery habitats,” Chris Moore, Virginia executive director of the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said in a news release last week.

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